The city of East Lansing was fertile ground for noteworthy architecture between 1940 and 1970. An upper-level class of Michigan State University students is working on a project to document a selection of those homes, businesses and churches. There’s a concern that these buildings aren’t old enough to be on historic registries, and that some could be demolished or remodeled before becoming eligible.
WKAR’s Scott Pohl spoke with MSU Art and Art History professor Susan Bandes about the work her students are doing with the Michigan Modern project.
She says the city assessor started them with a list of 32-hundred buildings from that period, now narrowed down to about 60 thought to be of architectural or historical significance.
SUSAN BANDES:Each student has picked three buildings: two to do some research on, and one to do really in-depth research on. So, at the end of the semester, early December, we’ll be meeting with the State Historic Preservation Office, to present to them our information.
SCOTT POHL:What sort of response are you getting from the owners of these homes? Are they willingly taking part in the project?
BANDES:We’ve had fabulous response. I know many of them, and all of them are eager to show their houses and to speak with students, and to share with them whatever information they have.
GREAT ARCHITECTS AT WORK IN EAST LANSING
POHL:Was East Lansing blessed with a large number of notable architects working in this city during that time?
BANDES:There are some who are internationally known, like Minoru Yamasaki, who did the Michigan State Medical Society building. That building is known, it’s well published, it’s now on the national register. The Michigan State Medical Society is very proud of their building. They’ve really kept it up.
So that’s at one end of the spectrum. At the other end, there are three local architecture firms that we’ve discovered, and they worked primarily in Lansing, East Lansing, and did a lot of houses.
We’re collecting oral histories. The one group of homes that’s well known in East Lansing is the Lantern Hill group of homes, which was designed for faculty members. For the most part, no basements, flat roofs, fairly modest homes within walking distance of the campus, designed by a Boston architect, Hugh Stubbins. All of those homes have been remodeled, expanded, somewhat changed. I think more important than the individual homes is the whole idea of the community, and the people who live on Lantern Hill are very much aware of the history of their little section of the city. There still is an original tenant who lives there: Pauline Adams. Those people who lived on Lantern Hill were known as “the commies”.
So, there’s a lot of interesting stories that we want to capture, and really understand why somebody in the 1950s or 60s would choose to design a house that is so different from the rest of the homes in East Lansing.
SOME BUILDINGS HAVE BEEN REMODELED
POHL:Have you encountered buildings from this era that you might be sad to say have not been maintained in the way you might have envisioned or preferred? Is that an issue with some of these buildings?
BANDES:Yes, it is an issue. One of the students, in looking at the assessors’ information came to one house which had two photographs: the first one, a sweet little modernist house with a flat roof. It had a second picture, from 2006, and now it has a peaked roof, and it looks like any other house on the block, and I’m sure that the owner had reasons for changing its style, but I think there wasn’t an awareness of the aesthetics of modernism, even in 2006, to make him retain those features of it. That was very surprising to the students and to the community people I’ve showed it to.